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A Sordid History of Kansas City Election Fraud Buried Ballots, Bullied Voters and a Blown Safe

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Above image credit: Boss Tom Pendergast. (Contributed | Terence O'Malley)
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13 minute read

It’s likely, over the next two months, that voters may hear rhetoric about rigged elections.

If so, they can take cold comfort in knowing the Kansas City area has a rich legacy of election fraud, stretching from before the Civil War to after World War II.

Over the years voters have been intimidated, bullied and beaten.

Ballots have been bought and sold, buried beneath random woodpiles and, in one case, stored as evidence in a courthouse vault before a convicted bank robber just out of Alcatraz federal prison -– according to a recent book — blew that vault open and stole them.

Local elections have long inspired vivid language.

“Cars were demolished, women beaten, trucks burned, ballot boxes stuffed and, in the city election of March 27, 1934, four men were killed,” a Kansas City Times reporter once wrote of that year’s vote.

“On election day pimps, whores, crooks, derelicts and other non-conformists, given lists of names, hurried from precinct to precinct casting ballots, receiving twenty-five cents per vote,” two scholars of the Tom Pendergast political machine wrote of elections in 1936.

Kansas City’s election irregularities have been cinematic — literally so. 

The 1996 film “Kansas City,” directed by Kansas City native Robert Altman, depicts a gang of men being delivered by open truck to one polling station. That same scene includes an election observer being manhandled away from the station before being shot and left for dead, all just after a uniformed police officer leaves the scene after giving the thugs an understanding nod.

None of this represented a stretch, said Frank Barhydt, another Kansas City native who co-wrote the “Kansas City” screenplay with Altman.

“I think we were pretty faithful to the time,” Barhydt said.

Because so much of Kansas City election fraud occurred during the reign of the Pendergast machine, any account of it also includes the personal quandary faced by Harry Truman, who had to maintain his reputation for personal integrity while benefiting from that same machine.

“How did Harry keep his nose clean in what became a cesspool of political machinations from 1926 through 1939?” asked Terence O’Malley, a Kansas City lawyer and filmmaker whose 2012 documentary, “Tom & Harry: The Boss and the President,” detailed the complex relationship between the two.

“How was it that Harry maintained his honor and dignity? It is pretty clear that Harry struggled internally with the machine’s demands.”

O’Malley, with collaborator Daniel Doss, have set this inner turmoil to music. Their production, “Pendergast and Truman: The Musical,” tentatively is scheduled to be presented free in a “concert reading” format Nov. 12 at the Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center.

A Pendergast musical? 

Sure, said O’Malley, who last year mounted a musical based on Nell Donnelly Reed, the Kansas City women’s garment maker who founded the Nelly Don brand.

“Not many other political machines have produced a president,” O’Malley said, “and not many political bosses have hand-picked the fellow who would go to the Senate from Missouri – and who cheated to put him there.”

1857-58: Border War

The Pendergast machine didn’t invent local election chicanery.

Pioneer residents in Kansas Territory may have done that.

The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the territory to settlement, pending statehood. Whether the state would be slave or free depended upon who settled there and what kind of constitution they adopted. To that end, pro-slavery and free-state voters registered to elect legislators and consider proposed constitutions.

In two separate vote fraud incidents in 1857 and 1858, voters in what are now local municipalities were defrauded.

In an 1857 election about 40 residents of Oxford Township, covering what today is south Leawood, were considered eligible to vote. 

Somehow the final vote tally included 1,628 votes. An investigation revealed the many of those voters’ names had been copied out of a Cincinnati, Ohio, directory.

The territorial governor threw out the results, which became known as “The Oxford Fraud.”

The following January free-staters voted to reject a pro-slavery constitution which would have allowed existing territory slave-holders to still possess them.

Rumors circulated of irregularities with ballots cast at Delaware Crossing on the Kansas River, today the location of Grinter Place State Historic Site in Kansas City, Kansas.

An investigation revealed how clerks — in an apparent attempt to hide evidence of their election mischief — buried hundreds of fraudulent pro-slavery votes in a wooden box originally used for a shipment of candles.

Calhoun's candlebox
Two territorial Kansas clerks used this wooden box to bury suspected fraudulent ballots allegedly cast in 1858 by residents of Delaware Crossing, in what is now Kansas City, Kansas. What today is known as “Calhoun’s Candlebox” is on display at Constitution Hall State Historic Site in Lecompton, Kansas. (Courtesy | Kansas Historical Society)

A sheriff exhumed the box from beneath a woodpile near the Lecompton office of John Calhoun, the pro-slavery territorial surveyor-general. 

The discovery damaged Calhoun’s reputation as well as any momentum enjoyed by pro-slavery supporters. In 1861 Kansas entered the union as a free state.

Today what became known as “Calhoun’s Candlebox” is on display at Constitution Hall State Historic Site in Lecompton, in Douglas County, near Lawrence.

“Visitors are amazed about what happened out here,” said Tim Rues, site administrator.

“But during that period leading up to statehood there was all kinds of turmoil — skirmishes and massacres and also voting fraud and voter intimidation.”

1918: ‘Plug-uglies, ex-convicts and hardened women’

Just days before the November 1918 general election, Albert Reeves, a Kansas City lawyer and a Republican congressional candidate for the Fifth District, issued a defiant statement.

“Tuesday the electorate of Jackson County will determine whether the reign of graft will continue or whether the gangsters will be whipped from their high places and the government restored to the people,” it read.

The reign of graft continued. 

A gang of thugs -– described as “plug-uglies, ex-convicts and hardened women” by Pendergast scholars Lawrence Larsen and Nancy Hulston in their 1997 book “Pendergast!” -– descended upon Kansas City, intimidating voters and beating one of them unconscious.

Reeves lost. In one precinct, in which only 30 voters had voted, Reeves allegedly lost by a margin of 700 votes to one.

He never ran for elective office again, and never forgot that election.

1922: Truman’s first campaign

In Harry Truman’s first campaign for eastern Jackson County judge, in 1922, he ran as a Pendergast candidate.

His political career could have ended there, however, but for the dramatic rescue of a ballot box rivals had plotted to steal.

To the Pendergasts, Truman proved an ideal candidate for largely rural eastern Jackson County. He’d been a farmer in Grandview and now lived in Independence, the largest source of voters in eastern Jackson County.

He was also a World War I veteran, which may have been the difference.

On the day of the Democratic primary, observers considered the race between Truman and Blue Springs banker E.E. Montgomery, the candidate sponsored by a rival faction commanded by Joseph Shannon, to be close.

Sensing a close race, Shannon sent about 20 men to a polling station in Fairmount, a wooded district, with instructions to seize the ballot box.

Learning of this, John Miles, Jackson County marshall, sent two deputies, one of whom was his brother George, to that same polling station, where they encountered Shannon.

According to several accounts, when the Shannon men arrived and overpowered George Miles, the second deputy pressed his gun to Shannon’s stomach, saying “Your gang may get Miles, but I will get you.”

Shannon called off his men.

Truman won the election by about 280 votes out of 12,000 cast, or just over 2%.

He arguably owed his victory to John Miles -– a Republican -– but also an Army officer with whom Truman had served in France.

1934: Machine politics

In the 1930s to visibly oppose the Pendergast machine in Kansas City was to literally draw fire.

Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg, who in 1932 began publicly condemning the machine, equipped his car with bulletproof glass after being fired upon by men in another vehicle.

As the March 1934 municipal elections approached, machine enforcers armed themselves.

More than 60 years later, two locally born filmmakers incorporated this unseemly legacy into their film “Kansas City.”

The movie set the kidnapping of a prominent lawyer’s wife in the context of 1930s Kansas City, which included both the celebrated jazz of that time as well as Election Day mayhem.

The film makes specific reference to an actual Kansas City election, held on March 27, 1934, which left four people dead and 11 wounded.

Hollywood’s Take on ‘Kansas City’

Director Robert Altman explored machine politics in his 1996 film, “Kansas City.”

The violence served the film’s plot, representing a distraction to law enforcement that allowed the kidnapping to play out at length, said Frank Barhydt, the Kansas City native who, with director Robert Altman, wrote the screenplay.

“That was one of the things we liked -– the election and everything that went wrong,” Barhydt said. 

“Altman and I were both reading ‘Tom’s Town’ at the time,” Barhydt added, referring to the 1947 book by former Kansas City Star reporter William M. Reddig that chronicled the machine’s reign.

Barhydt, himself a former Star reporter, also made use of a unique asset -– the newspaper’s telephone archive service that solicited reader input.

About 100 readers dialed in and left recorded recollections.

Barhydt listened to all of them, as did Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actor who portrayed “Blondie,” the Jean Harlow-obsessed telegraph operator who kidnaps the lawyer’s wife in an attempt to see her hoodlum husband, held by other gangsters, released.

“You got a pretty good sense of peoples’ lives during those years,” Barhydt said. “One thing I picked up was how Kansas City was a wide-open town, in the sense that anything could happen.”

One reality was the random, sudden violence that Kansas City residents sometimes had to accommodate. What came to be called the Union Station Massacre in June 1933 had left four lawmen dead as well as the criminal they had been escorting to prison.

In the film “Kansas City,” machine hoodlums assault and shoot an election observer. But, arguably, the film underplays the violence of March 27, 1934. Among the four people killed at polling stations was P.W. Oldham, a 78-year-old hardware dealer who was locking up his store in the 5800 block of Swope Parkway as shooting began.

“I shall never vote again,” a niece of Oldham was quoted as saying. “Who can we trust? What can we believe in after this? 

“This was not an election. This was war.”

In other mayhem thugs assaulted a reform candidate for the Kansas City Council, shot up the car of a Star reporter before chasing him back to the newspaper building, and beat the chauffeur of the Star’s editor.

That August, Harry Truman, who had just served eight years as Jackson County Presiding Judge, won the state’s U.S. Senate Democratic primary. Of the approximately 148,000 votes cast in Kansas City, about 137,000 were cast for Truman, according to Robert Ferrell, author of the 1994 book, “Harry S. Truman: A Life.” 

Having survived the primary, Truman easily won the general election that November.

“The work of the Kansas City machine was heroic,” Ferrell wrote.

1936: ‘Move on them’

Machine insiders knew that, by the 1930s, Pendergast ward workers could deliver up to 60,000 votes or more.

But then there were Kansas City residents who willingly voted for machine candidates. They viewed elections as opportunities to support the machine that sustained them with jobs on the county or municipal payrolls, wrote Kansas City Times reporter James J. Fisher in 1966.

They voted, Fisher wrote, to keep “the $125-a-month job which kept food on the table. With the city as the biggest single make-work employer in those days, being on the wrong side in an election could mean economic disaster.”

The actual day of the election, meanwhile, represented a small bonus.

“Some people were dependent upon the election for their bread and butter,” Matt Devoe, a former Pendergast precinct worker, told the Kansas City Star in 1996. 

“You handed them a ballot and a dollar.”

But in 1936 election majorities that were merely suspicious in previous years grew ridiculous. In one ward a Pendergast candidate won a primary for state office by outpolling his opponent 19,201 votes to 13.

In June 1936, Pendergast had suffered a coronary thrombosis, or blood clot, while in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. That August he was stricken with an intestinal blockage and upon his September return to Kansas City, underwent a colostomy.

U.S. Senator Harry Truman and Tom Pendergast
In 1936 U.S. Senator Harry Truman and Tom Pendergast, head of the Pendergast political machine, met in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention. Federal investigations of vote fraud in a Kansas City election that year contributed to the machine’s eventual decline. (Acme Photo | Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)

Machine ward and precinct leaders, perhaps growing nervous about their uncertain futures, delivered huge majorities to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Even Tom Pendergast, Jr., in a letter written to Margaret Truman Daniel after the former president’s daughter had published a 1973 biography of her father, admitted that machine workers “got carried away and voted the sick, the dying and the dead.”

A federal grand jury convened within weeks of the 1936 general election.

“Gentlemen, reach for all, even if you find them in high authority,” U.S. District Court Judge Albert Reeves – the same frustrated congressional candidate from 1918 – told jurors.

“Move on them. We can’t surrender the ballot box up to thugs, gangsters and plug-uglies.”

Federal investigators already were in Kansas City. 

Charles Appel, founder of the FBI’s technical laboratory and an expert in forensic document examination, began studying ballots as marshals brought them in. The first bag of ballots Appel studied, according to online FBI historical files, contained 95 ballots that appeared to have been tampered with.

Jurors returned the first indictments the following spring. Throughout 1937 and into 1938 other juries brought in guilty verdicts on 259 of 278 individuals indicted. 

Soon election officials struck some 60,000 bogus names from Kansas City voter registration files.

How did Harry Truman – then a U.S. senator sometimes derided as the “Senator from Pendergast” by Washington insiders – reconcile himself with this?

“Any man would have been very foolish to turn down the support of the organization which at that time controlled 100,000 votes, and I acted just as every other candidate would have done,” Truman wrote a friend in 1939.

Jon Taylor, professor of history at the University of Central Missouri and the author of several Truman-related volumes, cites the self-examination found in Truman’s “Pickwick Papers.” 

Sometimes, to escape the pressures of serving as Jackson County presiding judge in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Truman would check into the Pickwick Hotel in downtown Kansas City and conduct interior monologues which he recorded on sheets of hotel stationery.

In one entry, he describes his conflicted emotions about averting his eyes from county officials who pilfered taxpayer money while supervising various projects. 

“Was I right or did I compound a felony?” Truman asked himself.

“In the Pickwick Papers Truman says some pretty damning things about members of the machine,” Taylor said.

“But he never really comes out and condemns election fraud.”

Truman may have had his own issues with those targeting the Pendergast machine, especially during his initial years in the U.S. Senate.

First, there was Maurice Milligan, the U.S. Attorney leading the vote fraud prosecutions in Kansas City.

He was not a friend of Truman. Milligan’s brother, Jacob “Tuck” Milligan, had run against Truman and lost in the 1934 Democratic senatorial primary.

Also, Truman had been serving on the railroad subcommittee of the Interstate Commerce Committee. In that role Truman investigated the bankruptcies of major railroads in the 1920s and 1930s. His efforts contributed to the passage of the Wheeler-Truman Transportation Act of 1940, which provided government oversight of national railroad reorganization.

“What might have bothered Truman is that here you’ve got Milligan going after these Kansas City precinct workers while Truman is investigating railroad executives,” Taylor said.

Still another issue for Truman, Taylor said, may have been the frequency with which vote fraud investigators were targeting members of ethnic communities – Irish, Italian and Black – that long had made up solid machine constituencies.

“Many of the machine’s supporters were immigrants, and I think there was a definite effort among some in Kansas City to go after those folks,” Taylor said.

“I think there was some anti-immigrant sentiment.” 

Truman knew the importance of those communities to the Pendergast operation, as well as to his own political aspirations. In 1940 he launched his Senate re-election campaign with a speech in Sedalia – not far from Missouri’s “Little Dixie” district – which included specific reference to Black citizens and how in protecting their rights “we are only acting in accord with our own ideals of a true democracy.”

1946-47: Blowing the safe

Tom Pendergast reported to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in May 1939 to begin serving a 15-month sentence for income tax evasion. Authorities, granting him three months for good behavior, released him on probation a year later.

He died in 1945.

That didn’t prevent Harry Truman, by then president, from asking Pendergast’s nephew James the following year to help defeat Roger Slaughter, the Fifth District congressman who was a Democrat but who often was an opponent of Truman initiatives.

The machine found a candidate in Grandview lawyer Enos Axtell, who indeed defeated Slaughter in the August 1946 Democratic primary, with large majorities in wards considered under machine control.

President Harry Truman and his daughter Margaret
President Harry Truman and his daughter Margaret voted together in a 1946 primary election. Suspected fraudulent ballots from that election were stolen from a Jackson County Courthouse vault the following year. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)

The Kansas City Star, sniffing something, deployed two reporters to smoke out evidence of irregularities.

The subsequent investigation detailed how voters appeared to have been defrauded. Federal authorities, however, seemed disinterested in mounting their own investigation.

“Was that because of Truman?” asked Patrick Fasl, a Kansas City author who in 2018 published “John the Yegg: The 1947 Ballot Theft from the Jackson County Courthouse,” a book on the controversy.

“It had to have been.”

Despite federal inaction, the Jackson County prosecutor convened a grand jury which after two months in 1947 returned 71 indictments. 

Prosecutors impounded suspect ballots, storing them in a downtown Jackson County courthouse vault. On the night of May 28, 1947, somebody blew open the safe’s doors and took much of the evidence.

The investigation collapsed.

“Nobody was ever arrested or indicted for blowing that safe,” said Fasl, who served 33 years as a campus police officer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Fasl, however, figured out who did it.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests filed over several years, Fasl obtained a document that included the statement of John Murray Gould, a bank robber who had spent time in Alcatraz federal prison.

John Murray Gould mug shot
John Murray Gould, a convicted bank robber, told federal investigators that Kansas City gangster Charles Binaggio instructed him to blow open a Jackson County Courthouse safe to steal ballots held as evidence of alleged vote fraud during a 1946 election. (Courtesy | Patrick Fasl)

Gould said he had been contracted to blow the safe by Charles Binaggio, a longtime Kansas City gangster.

What had been Binaggio’s motive?

Fasl believes that, sensing the Pendergast machine’s diminishing fortunes, Binaggio had been working to expand his own influence across Missouri. Turning out large majorities on behalf of Enos Axtell, Fasl said, may have been part of those efforts. 

Binaggio, Fasl added, imagined ingratiating himself with Missouri officials and perhaps suggesting candidates for the state’s board of Kansas City police commissioners. 

That, Fasl said, would have made all the easier Binaggio’s plans to expand illegal gambling in Missouri.

Binaggio’s schemes ended with his April 1950 assassination, with associate Charles Gargotta, inside the offices of the First Ward Democratic Club – located on Truman Road in Kansas City. 

Front-page photographs in the Kansas City Star documented the dead – including Gargotta’s body on the office floor beneath a prominent portrait of President Harry Truman.

The subsequent uproar contributed to the establishment of the Kefauver Committee, which held hearings on organized crime in many cities across the country, including Kansas City, in the early 1950s. It was during these hearings, Fasl said, that James Pendergast told authorities his political operation had not been involved in vote fraud or ballot theft.

Truman still had received what he initially had requested, the defeat of Slaughter in the 1946 primary. 

But there would be, Fasl said, an ironic footnote.

“Enos Axtell lost that election to Albert Reeves, Jr.,” said Fasl.

That was the son of the same federal judge who never forgot how machine thugs had contributed to his 1918 congressional defeat and who, in 1936, had urged a grand jury to investigate Kansas City election fraud.

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.

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